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Sally Finch stood before the mirror in the pretty terrace house she had recently inherited and knew she'd made a huge mistake.
So much depended on today's job interview. If she didn't start earning soon, she wouldn't be able to stay in this gorgeous old house that she'd loved since she was six years old. She couldn't start her new life as an independent woman in the city. Bottom line, she couldn't eat!
But as Sally studied the results of this morning's careful grooming, she was swamped by doubtsniggling at first, but growing stronger with every twist and turn in front of the mirror.
Until this moment, she'd been confident that she knew exactly how to dress for a big city interview, but the mirror posed an uncomfortable question. Shouldn't she, at the very least, be able to recognise her own reflection?
What had gone wrong?
She'd woken early in a fever of confident excitement, had sung in the shower, eaten a super-healthy breakfast of fresh fruit and yoghurt in Chloe's cheerful, sun-filled kitchenshe still thought of this house as her godmother'sand then she'd raced upstairs to her bedroom.
The new and too expensive navy-blue dress fitted like a dream. Made from fine merino wool, with a high neckline and a neat white collar, it fell in straight, slim lines to a softly flared hemline. Its simplicity and neatness, Sally fervently hoped, signalled the very essence of efficiency.
Intent on completing her efficient image, she'd carefully brushed and crammed every wayward wisp of her blonde curling hair under hairpins and into a tight knot at the back of her head.
And then she'd stepped back to appraise the results and saw, with a chilling certainty, thatshe looked as grim and forbidding as her unforgettable third grade teacher.
How had this happened? The neck to knee navy had looked flattering in the shop. 'Fabulous' was the word the shop assistant had used.
Now the dress made Sally look too thin.
Admittedly, she had always been on the light side. Her older brothers had teased her about it when she was a skinny kid and she hadn't given two hoots. Dressed in their hand-me-down jeans, sensible cotton shirts and sturdy riding boots, she'd simply been one of the gang, riding horses or quad bikes all over her family's Outback property at Tarra-Binya.
Today, however, at the age of twenty-three and on the brink of life as a city woman, Sally would have loved to show more of her womanly curves.
She wondered what Chloe would have thought of this outfit. Her godmother had had a brilliant sense of style, and an even greater capacity for living life to the full. She'd been sensitive and warm-hearted too and had always said exactly the right thing to make Sally feel good about herself.
That she wasn't here to help Sally phase into city life was almost too much to bear.
Blinking back tears she couldn't afford on such an important morning, Sally tipped her head from side to side and swiftly switched her attention to her hair. Perhaps that was an even bigger problem than the dress. She'd overdone the efficient image.
After all, her interview at Blackcorp Mining Consultancies was for a front desk job and, if she got it, she would be meeting people all day long. And, although the Human Resources manager at Blackcorp would require efficiency in a receptionist, she would be expecting friendliness too.
Friendliness was Sally's forte. She loved people and loved to chat, had always hoped for a job that involved plenty of talking. But now, as she practised smiling into the mirror, forced a sparkle into her eyes and gave a cheerful flash of her white teeth, she still looked like the Wicked Witch of the West.
That hair knot has to go.
Frantically, she began to rip out hairpins. She didn't really have time to start rearranging her appearance, but she couldn't face her appointment looking like this.
Pins scattered left and right, hitting the glass tray, the polished timber dressing table, the carpeted floor. Sally paid little heed to them as blonde curls bobbed up, like coiled springs, happy to be free again.
The front doorbell rang.
Not now! Who on earth would be calling at eight o'clock on a Monday morning? She was only halfway through the rescue attempt on her hair.
Unwilling to waste precious time by going all the way downstairs to the door, Sally dashed to the bedroom window, conveniently poised above the front steps. With a flick of the curtain, she could identify her caller.
Her sister-in-law was almost jogging on the top step, balancing her young daughter, Rose, on her hip while she pressed the doorbell again.
'I'm up here,' Sally called.
Anna Finch looked up, her face chalk-white and terrified. Sally's first thought was that something had happened to Steve, her brother, who worked on an oil rig off the Western Australian coast.
Without another word, she left the window and flew down the stairs, her hair problems instantly dismissed.
Anna,' she cried as she flung the front door open and encountered a heart-stopping close up view of her sister-in-law's pale cheeks and fearful, worried eyes. 'What is it? What's the matter? Is it Steve?'
'No, Steve's fine. It's Oliver. He's having a terrible asthma attack.'
It was only then that Sally saw Anna's blue car parked at the gate and her three-year-old nephew's sad face peering anxiously out at them. Poor little Oliver looked pale and sunken and, even from this distance, Sally could sense that he was struggling to breathe.
'I rang the doctor's surgery and they told me to take him straight to the hospital,' Anna said.
'The poor darling. How can I help?'
'I was hoping you could mind Rose.'As she said this, Anna thrust her chubby young daughter into Sally's arms. 'Oliver's so frightened and I'm almost as terrified as he is.'
Sally could believe that. Anna was often in a state of high anxiety, one of those mothers who were perpetually worried. And this time she had a real emergency on her hands.
'I don't think I could manage at the hospital if I had Rose with me as well,' she said.
Sally nearly said, I have my interview this morning, but she bit it back. Anna had enough on her plate.
'I knew you wouldn't mind.' Without checking Sally's response, Anna slipped the strap of a large crimson vinyl bag from her shoulder and set it on the doorstep. 'Everything Rose needs should be in here.'
'Right.' Sally looked at the fifteen-month-old toddler in her armsall golden hair and sunshiny smilesand her heart sank. What on earth could she do with Rose while she went to the interview? She was already in danger of running late. And her hopes were pinned on scoring this job. Already, an alarming number of bills had landed in her letter box.
'You're wonderful, Sal,' Anna said. 'It's so great having you close by now.' At the bottom of the steps, she seemed to remember something. 'What on earth have you done to your hair?'
'Oh.' Sally knew she must look a fright with one half of her hair still in pins. She shrugged and a hysterical little laugh escaped her. 'It'sit's an experiment. I was trying a new look.'
With an unflattering roll of her eyes and a shake of her head, Anna raced back to her car.
Logan Black sat in his office, which was perched like an eagle's eyrie high above Sydney's glittering blue harbour, and spoke smoothly into the phone. 'I'm sorry to disappoint you, Charles, but I couldn't consider that proposal without'
Logan stopped in mid-sentence. He wasn't easily distracted from a business conversation, but he could have sworn he'd heard a giggle coming from beneath his desk.
But that was impossible.
As I was saying, I' He paused again. This time he'd felt a distinct tug on the lace of his right shoe.
What the devil?
Swivelling in his leather executive chair, he peered into the shadowy depths beneath his enormous cherry wood desk and almost dropped the phone.
A very small child grinned cheekily up at hima little girl, if Logan guessed correctlynot much more than a baby really. Her face was distinctly impish and she was clutching Logan's shoelace in her tiny pink fist.
Logan cursed and then blustered, 'How did you get in here?'
'What's that? What are you talking about?' The CEO of Australia's biggest mining company was suddenly confused and impatient on the other end of the line.
'Ahone moment, Charles.' Logan stared down at the tiny intruder. How had a baby materialised in his office? In his officethe inner sanctum of the Managing Director of Blackcorp Mining Consultancies? It didn't make sense. The occasional attractive woman might have found her way in here unannounced, but that was another matter entirely.
Surely it was impossible for any trespasser to enter here without being seen. Had the child crawled? Or was she simply so small she'd been out of eye range? Below the radar, so to speak.
With his hand over the receiver, Logan pressed the button connecting him to his PA's desk and, at the same time, he barked, 'Maria!'
To his dismay, there was no reply from outside and no reassuring female figure appeared at the doorway. To make matters worse, the little trespasser had abandoned Logan's shoelaces and seemed intent on climbing his leg, clasping at the fine wool of his expensive trousers with distinctly sticky paws.
'Down!' Logan ordered in much the same voice he might have used to scold a wilful puppy.
'Logan, what the hell's going on?' Charles Holmes's voice thundered into the phone.
'I'm sorry, Charles.' Eyeing the toddler with an emotion approaching horror, Logan cleared his throat. Where was Maria? 'Something'sercome up. An emergency. I'll have to call you back. I'll email through my suggestions for the changes and then we'll take another look at your proposal.'
As he hung up, Logan scowled at the small person now trying to straddle his knee. Her eyes were dark brown and enormous, like a puppy's, her hair super-fine and shiny gold, her skin soft and pink.
She looked deceptively angelic, smelled of shampoo and was dressed neatly in a pink dress embroidered with ducks. Her shoes were soft leather, her socks clean and white. She had, Logan admitted silently, the noticeable attributes of a child whose mother cared for her. This morning, however, her mother had been noticeably careless.
'Where are your parents?' Logan demanded aloud.
'Jig-jig!' the baby girl replied, bouncing vigorously on his Italian-shod foot.
'No, I will not jig-jig.' Gingerly fitting his hands beneath her tiny armpits, Logan lifted her before she could scramble any higher and set her back on the floor. 'I don't have time to jig-jig. I have a company to run. We need to find your parents.'
Again he pressed the buzzer on his desk and, when there was no answer, he marched to his office doorway and glared at the abandoned PA's desk. If Maria was engaged elsewhere, he would have to call the front desk. Surely someone knew where this child belonged.
Behind him, Logan heard another disturbing giggle.
The little girl was under the desk again, peeking out at him and grinning mischievously, as if they'd begun a new game of hide and seek.
For a moment Logan felt an unexpected warm sensation in his chest. The baby was undeniably cute and he thought of his nephews, his sister's boys. He really should visit Carissa more often.
But he was snapped right out of this uncharacteristic moment of sentiment when a chubby pink hand reached for the dangling cord attached to his computer.
'No, kid. No!'
Five years ago Logan had been proud of his rugby tackles, but today, as he hurled himself into a low dive across the office carpet, he knew he was already too slow and too late.
The interview was going rather well, Sally thought. She'd made it in the nick of time, her curls restored to their usual disorganized bounciness, and Janet Keaton, Blackcorp's HR manager, had been incredibly understanding when she'd telephoned to explain about her last-minute babysitting emergency.
'I really need to complete the interviews today,' Janet had said. 'Perhaps you'd better bring your niece with you. Do you think she would sit in the corner of my office while we talk?'
'I can't promise she'll be quiet,' Sally had warned. 'But I'll bring a bag of her toys and her favourite picture books.'
Janet's voice had been reassuringly warm. 'Let's give it a try. I might not be able to reschedule your time slot.'
Fortunately, a rescheduling hadn't been necessary. Rose, bless her, had become completely absorbed in pushing brightly coloured shapes through holes in a plastic box and then opening the box to take the shapes out, before starting the process all over again. And Sally had become equally absorbed in Janet Keaton's interesting questions.
She was quizzed about her childhood at Tarra-Binya, about her boarding school days in a big country town and the computer course she'd completed on leaving school. She'd told Janet about her summer holiday jobs on the front desk of Chloe's art gallery here in Sydney at Potts Point. And that led to Sally explaining about her godmother, Chloe Porter, a well-known figure in Sydney's art circles, and about her legacy of the terrace house.
'And you didn't mind leaving the country to live in Sydney?' Janet asked.
Sally almost blurted the truth that she'd had to leave, that she'd had to escape her family's stifling concern, had to prove that she could manage on her own. But she doubted that would impress her interviewer.
'I've always wanted to live here,' she said emphatically, and this was also very true. 'It's been my dream. I spent nearly every summer holiday with Chloe and it was always so much fun. I love Sydney. It's so cosmopolitan and exciting. I'm really looking forward to making my home here.'
A mining consultancy is very different from an art gallery,' Janet said carefully. 'What do you know about Blackcorp and the Australian mining industry?'
'Well ' Sally took a deep breath and thanked heavens that she'd looked at Blackcorp's website on the Internet. 'I know that Blackcorp's a big operation right across Australia. Mining's a huge industry and it's bigger than ever right now. Actually, two of my brothers work in mines. One in Queensland and another in Western Australia.'
Janet nodded and waited for Sally to continue.
'China's Australia's major market,' she said. And I guess a consultancy like this would be offering support services accommodation on the mine sites, catering. And there are all kinds of environmental issues to be worked around.'
By then Sally had exhausted her knowledge and she thought she might have flunked, but Janet smiled encouragingly and gave her a questionnaire to answer.